Barney's Rubble

Memories of Bill

Doug shares some memorable face-offs with Microsoft's erstwhile chairman.

I started covering Microsoft in the mid-'80s when it wasn't the world's largest software company, but third behind Lotus and Ashton-Tate. It was, however, by virtue of MS-DOS, the most powerful software concern.

Back then software leaders were real characters. Jim Manzi ruled Lotus with an iron -- and often sardonic -- fist. Borland's Philippe Kahn came over from France and upset the apple cart with super-low prices and an oversized body and personality.

And then there was Bill. Bill was as tough -- OK, tougher than other software execs. And this toughness, combined with a brain equal to 12 Mensans' brains, led his company to grow, quickly overtaking his rivals and then never looking back.

While some execs were fairly incognito, Gates was always surrounded. At a show, a dozen or so folks would circle around and pepper him with questions. Often I saw other software luminaries in these crowds.

One impressive talent was Bill's memory for acronyms and dates. A dinner was set up at ComputerWorld in Boston with the editors. Gates came down from his hotel room in an expensive but ill-fitting suit, with tussled hair and a bit too much cologne. Although it had been raining for two weeks solid and the city was half-flooded, Gates wanted to walk to the restaurant. We had to put our foot down and use the limos we had already paid for.

Microsoft set up the dinner to discuss our coverage. Bill thought we were far too negative, especially about Windows, which IT folks felt cost too much and lacked performance.

At the table we had experts in every area of technology, but Gates was never at a loss for comment and got every single acronym right. Redmond Editor Ed Scannell was there. Ed has a photographic memory for dates -- he reminded me that the dinner was on April 6, 1987, and that we invited Bill to watch the middleweight championship fight between Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard. Typically, Bill declined our invitation, saying he had to get back to the hotel to review some code on his laptop.

Before flying to Boston to see us, Bill had been in New York speaking at a user group meeting. This, I believe, is the key to Microsoft becoming the most powerful software company. While other execs met with subordinates, Wall Street and the press, Gates flew across the country and around the world meeting with customers and appearing at user groups -- often to personally demonstrate a new product and get direct feedback. By being one with the customer, Bill not only built better products, but thousands that met him remained forever loyal.

Perhaps my best memory is a debate Bill and I had in 1989 in the pages of ComputerWorld over the future of desktop operating systems. Bill argued that OS/2 would be the most important -- this was before the IBM divorce, of course -- and I said Unix would win. We were both wrong, but because Linux does have desktop fans, I'll claim a small victory.

Do you have any personal memories of Bill? Send 'em over to me at dbarney@redmondmag.com.

About the Author

Doug Barney is editor in chief of Redmond magazine and the VP, editorial director of Redmond Media Group.

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